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HEY, CHAMP!
Richard Hoffer
February 26, 1990
New heavyweight king Buster Douglas is probably the only one in boxing who believed he would earn the right to that title
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February 26, 1990

Hey, Champ!

New heavyweight king Buster Douglas is probably the only one in boxing who believed he would earn the right to that title

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A New Era Dawned sweetly last Saturday, with hundreds of children waving pink carnations at James (Buster) Douglas. They were in his old neighborhood, in Columbus, Ohio, at the Windsor Terrace Recreation Center. Gusts of wind scattered some snowflakes; it was bitterly cold, under hard gray skies. But as a caravan of white stretch limos pulled up, the people streamed from low apartment buildings to crowd around a small platform and view the new and finally undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Flowers were distributed to the crowd, and when Douglas looked out at his old turf, he suddenly saw an unlikely landscape. Carnations and large bouquets of red roses were held aloft; the whole wintry place was a bloom.

This is, in at least one particular, how different things have become since Douglas's shocking 10th-round knockout of Mike Tyson on Feb. 11 in Tokyo. The most valuable franchise in sports—the heavyweight boxing championship—has been returned to the heartland, where it is possible to schedule a parade on a few days' notice and have 25,000 people show up in a new and unknown champion's behalf. Did neighbors decorate Tyson's house after he unified the title? Did anyone dare pin a corsage on him? Rather, promoter Don King made him sit foolishly on a throne, holding a scepter and wearing a crown.

Everything is different now. King's position as the promoter of heavyweight champions is as wobbly as Tyson was in Tokyo. Two of boxing's three major sanctioning bodies, the WBC and the WBA, may have been damaged beyond repair. A onetime assistant to former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes who otherwise had trouble holding a job is entertaining $50 million offers. And this new champion....

For his part, the new champion does not bluster. He is nonthreatening to a fault. And even though he elicited no attention before he knocked Tyson silly—not even in Columbus, where he was almost entirely neglected—he does not gloat. With unimaginable financial prospects, Douglas has few plans for extravagance. He may buy a boat, he says, and some suits, perhaps a Mercedes-Benz. Instead he goes about fulfilling a new champ's traditional obligations—visiting the David Letterman show, scheduling appearances on the Johnny Carson show, and taping messages for his own 900 phone number—with agreeable aplomb. He is thrilled, in boxing's sudden new age of innocence and naivet�, to have his own parade.

How different things are for him. Douglas remembers when light welterweight Jerry Page, a fellow Columbus native, won an Olympic gold medal in 1984, and the city organized a homecoming parade. Douglas watched that parade from the corner of Broad and High, not so much out of curiosity as out of business interest. Douglas was passing out flyers for his fight with Dave Jaco at the Sheraton Center Ballroom. Ringside was $10. "That fight never came off, now that I think about it," he says. "Just canceled."

The idea of having his own parade did not occur to him at the time. What has happened to him, to boxing, in just one week, could not have occurred to anybody. In fact, there is still some resistance to the reality of it.

The past week has not been entirely satisfying in every respect for Douglas or for boxing. It has seemed to the Douglas camp that the new champion's title is considered temporary, that everybody expects Tyson to reclaim it in a rematch and return heavyweight boxing to its previous noncompetitive status. Douglas, who is 29, says he intends to fight only twice more—against top-ranked contender Evander Holyfield and Tyson—before retiring. Yet despite Douglas's thorough beating of Tyson, few boxing observers seem to believe that he will realize even this limited agenda. Last Friday, Douglas returned to his Columbus gym, a corner of the Fitness Trend health club that can only be reached by walking through an aerobics class and across a basketball court. A fan there told him he was now only a 10-to-1 underdog to beat Tyson. Said Douglas, "That's up from 100 to 1." Actually, the few sports books that accepted bets on Douglas had him at 42 to 1.

Douglas has created interest, if not confidence. Much has been made of his lackluster career—before defeating Tyson he was 29-4-1 and known principally for having quit in the 10th round of a 1987 bout with Tony Tucker—and the series of personal misfortunes that piled on him as he neared the biggest day of his life. His wife left him last year, the mother of his 11-year-old son is gravely ill with leukemia, and a week before he left for Tokyo his mother died of a stroke. Douglas gave his feat added resonance when, still in the ring, he tearfully dedicated the victory to his mother. He wasn't back in Columbus long before a representative of Sylvester Stallone notified him of movie interest. Stallone is working on his fourth sequel to Rocky. Perhaps he means to get back to the source material.

For all the charm of Douglas's story, nobody expects it to play long. That was made clear to him when he flew to New York City on Feb. 14 to tape an HBO interview that would air in conjunction with the rebroadcast of the bout. Douglas arrived on time. Tyson and King, his adviser, were an hour late, having gone to the wrong HBO building, and then having been delayed by a crowd that had gathered for his appearance. Douglas took Tyson and King's tardiness as another example of a lack of respect for him, and at the outset of the interview it became clear that King and HBO still regarded him as an accidental champion. HBO's Larry Merchant was mostly interested in Tyson's reactions to defeat, rather than Douglas's to victory. When Merchant began the taping by asking Tyson three questions in a row, producer Ross Greenburg walked onto the set to interrupt. "We can't do five minutes on just Mike," he told Merchant. "You gotta mix it up." King fawned desperately over the former champion. Afterward, Douglas, for once bitter, said, "I might as well not have been there."

Douglas's feisty manager, John Johnson, was equally suspicious of insult. He heard that King was in the HBO control room laughing at Douglas during the taping. Johnson stormed into the room and said, "Are you laughing at James Douglas? If you are, you're finished."

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